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The pharmaceutical industry discovers, develops, produces, and markets drugs or pharmaceutical drugs for use as medications to be administered (or self-administered) to patients, with the aim to cure them, vaccinate them, or alleviate the symptoms. Pharmaceutical companies may deal in generic or brand medications and medical devices. They are subject to a variety of laws and regulations that govern the patenting, testing, safety, efficacy and marketing of drugs.

By the 1890s, the profound effect of adrenal extracts on many different tissue types had been discovered, setting off a search both for the mechanism of chemical signalling and efforts to exploit these observations for the development of new drugs. The blood pressure raising and vasoconstrictive effects of adrenal extracts were of particular interest to surgeons as hemostatic agents and as treatment for shock, and a number of companies developed products based on adrenal extracts containing varying purities of the active substance. In 1897, John Abel of Johns Hopkins University identified the active principle as epinephrine, which he isolated in an impure state as the sulfate salt. Industrial chemist Jokichi Takamine later developed a method for obtaining epinephrine in a pure state, and licensed the technology to Parke-Davis. Parke-Davis marketed epinephrine under the trade name Adrenalin. Injected epinephrine proved to be especially efficacious for the acute treatment of asthma attacks, and an inhaled version was sold in the United States until 2011 (Primatene Mist). By 1929 epinephrine had been formulated into an inhaler for use in the treatment of nasal congestion.

In 1911 arsphenamine, the first synthetic anti-infective drug, was developed by Paul Ehrlich and chemist Alfred Bertheim of the Institute of Experimental Therapy in Berlin. The drug was given the commercial name Salvarsan. Ehrlich, noting both the general toxicity of arsenic and the selective absorption of certain dyes by bacteria, hypothesized that an arsenic-containing dye with similar selective absorption properties could be used to treat bacterial infections. Arsphenamine was prepared as part of a campaign to synthesize a series of such compounds, and found to exhibit partially selective toxicity. Arsphenamine proved to be the first effective treatment for syphilis, a disease which prior to that time was incurable and led inexorably to severe skin ulceration, neurological damage, and death.

In 1937 over 100 people died after ingesting "Elixir Sulfanilamide" manufactured by S.E. Massengill Company of Tennessee. The product was formulated in diethylene glycol, a highly toxic solvent that is now widely used as antifreeze. Under the laws extant at that time, prosecution of the manufacturer was possible only under the technicality that the product had been called an "elixir", which literally implied a solution in ethanol. In response to this episode, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which for the first time required pre-market demonstration of safety before a drug could be sold, and explicitly prohibited false therapeutic claims.

A Federal Trade Commission report issued in 1958 attempted to quantify the effect of antibiotic development on American public health. The report found that over the period 1946-1955, there was a 42% drop in the incidence of diseases for which antibiotics were effective and only a 20% drop in those for which antibiotics were not effective. The report concluded that "it appears that the use of antibiotics, early diagnosis, and other factors have limited the epidemic spread and thus the number of these diseases which have occurred". The study further examined mortality rates for eight common diseases for which antibiotics offered effective therapy (syphilis, tuberculosis, dysentery, scarlet fever, whooping cough, meningococcal infections, and pneumonia), and found a 56% decline over the same period. Notable among these was a 75% decline in deaths due to tuberculosis.

Early developments in the field of treating hypertension included quaternary ammonium ion sympathetic nervous system blocking agents, but these compounds were never widely used due to their severe side effects, because the long term health consequences of high blood pressure had not yet been established, and because they had to be administered by injection.

Prior to the second world war, birth control was prohibited in many countries, and in the United States even the discussion of contraceptive methods sometimes led to prosecution under Comstock laws. The history of the development of oral contraceptives is thus closely tied to the birth control movement and the efforts of activists Margaret Sanger, Mary Dennett, and Emma Goldman. Based on fundamental research performed by Gregory Pincus and synthetic methods for progesterone developed by Carl Djerassi at Syntex and by Frank Colton at G.D. Searle & Co., the first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was developed by E.D. Searle and Co. and approved by the FDA in 1960. The original formulation incorporated vastly excessive doses of hormones, and caused severe side effects. Nonetheless, by 1962, 1.2 million American women were on the pill, and by 1965 the number had increased to 6.5 million. The availability of a convenient form of temporary contraceptive led to dramatic changes in social mores including expanding the range of lifestyle options available to women, reducing the reliance of women on men for contraceptive practice, encouraging the delay of marriage, and increasing pre-marital co-habitation.

In 1971, Akira Endo, a Japanese biochemist working for the pharmaceutical company Sankyo, identified mevastatin (ML-236B), a molecule produced by the fungus Penicillium citrinum, as an inhibitor of HMG-CoA reductase, a critical enzyme used by the body to produce cholesterol. Animal trials showed very good inhibitory effect as in clinical trials, however a long term study in dogs found toxic effects at higher doses and as a result mevastatin was believed to be too toxic for human use. Mevastatin was never marketed, because of its adverse effects of tumors, muscle deterioration, and sometimes death in laboratory dogs.

A study by the consulting firm Bain & Company reported that the cost for discovering, developing and launching (which factored in marketing and other business expenses) a new drug (along with the prospective drugs that fail) rose over a five-year period to nearly $1.7 billion in 2003. According to Forbes, by 2010 development costs were between $4 billion to $11 billion per drug.

Drug researchers not directly employed by pharmaceutical companies often look to companies for grants, and companies often look to researchers for studies that will make their products look favorable. Sponsored researchers are rewarded by drug companies, for example with support for their conference/symposium costs. Lecture scripts and even journal articles presented by academic researchers may actually be "ghost-written" by pharmaceutical companies.

A fourth phase of post-approval surveillance is also often required due to the fact that even the largest clinical trials cannot effectively predict the prevalence of rare side-effects. Postmarketing surveillance ensures that after marketing the safety of a drug is monitored closely. In certain instances, its indication may need to be limited to particular patient groups, and in others the substance is withdrawn from the market completely.

Advertising is common in healthcare journals as well as through more mainstream media routes. In some countries, notably the US, they are allowed to advertise directly to the general public. Pharmaceutical companies generally employ sales people (often called 'drug reps' or, an older term, 'detail men') to market directly and personally to physicians and other healthcare providers. In some countries, notably the US, pharmaceutical companies also employ lobbyists to influence politicians. Marketing of prescription drugs in the US is regulated by the federal Prescription Drug Marketing Act of 1987.